This is the original paper presented at a Round Table discussion
several years ago at Pennsic. An updated version is being worked on
Many nomadic tribes have been labeled barbarians by "other
cultures." We may be playing with semantics here but I submit that
most nomads are not barbarians, but are a product of their
environment, now and in the past. Because of the land they dwelt
in, they modified their lives in order to survive. Another way of
saying it was the land shaped their lives.
You do what you have to do in order to survive.
The nomads were not barbarians; they were born into a harsh
climate forcing them to be fierce and sometimes cruel by our
standards in order to survive. Being constantly occupied with
survival, they had no time to learn a more sophisticated way of
life, as had the sedentary peoples of China and Iran. Nomads were
not mentally inferior; but specialists in survival against severe
odds. It has been said they did not know how to build a bridge to
cross a river, (a mark of civilization, I'm sure). Of what need
had they for a bridge? For one thing, they might never need to
cross a particular river at that particular spot again since they
were always on the move; for another, they could cross rivers by
piling their possesssions on top of their horses, and swim them
across, while holding on to their horses' tails. Why tie
themselves to a certain route, possibly going miles out of their
way, just because there was a bridge there to cross the river.
Sedentary people became too dependent on bridges, walls and other
accoutrements of "civilization", dulling their ability to think and
act quickly in a crisis. Not so the nomad; his wits were always
razor sharp, enabling him to face his environment with a good
chance to survive whatever came his way.
There are many levels of civilization, each with its
accompanying body of knowledge and customs. The nomads may not
have been on the top rung of the ladder but they certainly had
their place on the ladder.
The Mongols, as an example, were only one of the nomad tribes
which inhabited the Asian Steppes; however not until unification
under Jenghiz Khan, did they become the Mongol nation. They had
their own culture and their own tribal laws.
It was frequently necessary for
nomadic tribes to engage in internecine wars which were usually not
unprovoked. The strongest chief got the best grazing lands, and it
was often necessary to obtain and keep them by force. Following
tribal customs more often than not resulted in conflict with
Judging nomad tribes by our standards, something we sometimes
unwittingly do, is not fair to them. We must look at them in their
time and place, recognize that their fight for survival and their
severe life kept them at a lower cultural level than their more
sedentary neighbors. We can only imagine their reaction, upon
encountering the comparative luxury of the sedentary populations in
Early Western writers referred to the Mongols as barbarians
rather than nomads. Their opinions were largely based on Mongol
military conquests and atrocities so often written into their
accounts. While Brent says "... their activities have become
synonomous with senseless cruelty, a violation of all security, all
boundaries; for centuries they were regarded as the epitome of
human destructiveness," he further adds, "It has taken the cold
ingenuity of the twentieth century to match and even outstrip them
the heinous crimes that both legend and true recollection have
placed at their door." And legends must be taken with a grain of
salt. What is said of the Mongols can be said of many of the nomad
tribes of Asia and Eastern Europe.
Looking at the Middle Ages as a whole, we find it a period of
warfare and upheaval. Morris Bishop writes of the conditions in
the West during The Hundred Years War, "...War became a rather
dirty business. It was conducted by contract armies, recruited
anywhere without concern for nationality. ...knights fought no
longer from feudal obligation and loyalty but for advantage. Their
dream was to capture and hold some noble for an enormous ransom."
The Mongols were loyal to Jenghiz Khan and even when Turks made up
a large part of their fighting forces, the Mongols still fought as
a unit, loyal to their commanders. While they were not paid and
did receive large quantities of booty, their unquestioned loyalty
to their leader was their true incentive for remaining loyal.
Nomad tribes were loyal to their clan chiefs and as long as their
chiefs led them to good grazing lands and protected them from other
raiding tribes, the nomads remained loyal to their leaders.
The Mongol army was an excellent example of tribal loyalty.
It was organized on a decimal system, which was not new, as nomad
armies before Jenghiz Khan's time had been so organized. It was
a simple but effective system. A troop of 10, called an arban, was
the smallest unit. A squadron of 100, made up of 10 arbans, was
called a jagun. A regiment of 1,000, made up of 10 jaguns, was
called a minghan. A division of 10,000, made up of 10 minghans,
was called a tumen. Generally there would be two to three tumens
in a Mongol army. A personal bond of loyalty united the captains
of tens, hundreds, thousands and ten thousands, a feudal principle
surviving in Asia while it was dying in Europe.
George Vernadsky in volume 3 of The Mongols and Russia writes,
"In one of the momentous epochs in history, the period of Mongol
expansion, the Asiatic nomad people grew into a race of conquerors
who deeply affected the destinies of China, Persia, and Russia and
threatened Central Europe." Over the centuries other nomad chiefs
united a number or tribes and invaded territories to the south and
west of them, namely Eastern and Western Europe. None were as
successful as the Mongols but nevertheless they raided and
plundered. They were not successful in holding territory for any
length of time; but considering their lifestyle, it is highly
unlikely that they wished to hold and govern what they conquered.
H. G. Wells, quoting Bury, noted, "It is only recently that
European history has begun to understand that the successes of the
Mongol army which overran Poland and occupied Hungary ...were won
by consummate strategy and were not due to a mere overwhelming
superiority of numbers...It was wonderful how punctually and
effectually the arrangements of the commander were carried out in
operations extending from the Lower Vistula to Transylvania. Such
a campaign was quite beyond the power of any European army of the
time, and it was beyond the vision of any European commander.
There was no general in Europe, from Frederick II downward, who was
not a tyro in strategy compared to Subutai. It should also be
noticed that the Mongols embarked upon the enterprise with full
knowledge of the politcal situation of Hungary and the condition of
Poland--they had taken care to inform themselves by a well-
organized system of spies; on the other hand, the Hungarians and
Christian powers, like childish barbarians, knew hardly anything
about their enemies." It must be remembered here that the Mongol
armies were composed of many nomad tribes, led by nomad leaders.
Although using an army as an example of civilization may be
questioned by some, it does reflect the nomad's ability to think,
organize, cooperate, carry out orders and exhibit a highly
developed sense of loyalty.
Bishop characterizes the time of the `Hundred Years War` as
one where, "Terror was a normal condition of existence. The new
professional soldiers had no liking for pitched battles; they
preferred devastation and plunder, until in the end there was
little left to plunder and devastate...Mercenaries appeared
throughout the land. Impoverished German knights in particular
made a career of war. "Duke" Werner von Urolingen led a band in
Italy, whose operations were worthy of the Mafia. He would invade
a peaceful region, rob, rape, kill and burn and then inform the
capital city of his deeds, and demand a fee for leaving the
territory - or else! It was common among many nomad tribes to
exact tribute in lieu of attack and plunder. This practice seems
to be a bit more civilized than raiding, pillaging, burning and
then being paid to leave the territory.
The Hundred Years War was a futile war, achieving little but misery, destruction and death. So much effort was extended with so little to show for it. Mongol destruction and death were not altogether futile, for at least they forged a mighty empire, and throughout Asia and eastern Europe, established `Pax Mongolica' which benefited both the East and West. A nomad army on the move could not provide for prisoners and sometimes as a military tactic the enemy was killed to prevent him from following and attacking from the rear. It must have seemed the logical course to follow.
Through the years students of military tactics have studied
the campaign strategies of the Mongol general, Subodai; among the
most well-known were Napoleon, Gustavus Adolphus, Rommel and
Patton. If their culture was so inferior, what could these great
commanders learn from a "savage Mongol?"
To maintain communication throughout the Mongol empire, a
rapid and effective post system, yam, was organized. A continuous
change of mounts, made possible by the enormous numbers of horses
available to them, allowed some of the riders to travel over two
hundred miles in one day. Is this a sign of an inferior
civilization? There were three main classes in the postal system:
`second class', carried by foot-runners; `first class', carried on
horseback; and `His Majesty's Service', carried by non-stop riders
who changed horses but not riders. Not until the 1800s did America
make use of a similar postal system.
Extended post roads spanned the entire Mongol empire, which
encompassed many nomad tribes, and both valuable merchandise and
messages were carried to all parts of the empire. Legend has it
that an unprotected young female could take a sack of gold safely
from the Don River to Khanbaligh, the city of the Khans.
Nomad merchants dispatched their caravans over these roads
carrying new and useful things to Europe. This relinking of Europe
and the Orient resulted in an increased cultural exchange, and a
greater knowledge of world geography.
Worthy of attention in the field of nomad art were their
carvings from horn, bone, and hard wood. From these materials they
made numerous articles: plates, cups and bowls; bracelets, brooches
and plaques. These artifacts are generally used to describe a
We usually associate polo with very civilized cultures, but
Mongol horsemen played polo, which, of course, was only a minor
legacy which they left to the world.
Because the Mongols had no Bible or Koran, and no sacred
scriptures, they left no lasting monuments to a brief but glorious
civilization, for one should call the Mongol nation civilized.
Their roots can be traced back to a nomad/barbarian culture, but
from the time of unification under Jenghiz Khan, when for the first
time they called themselves Mongols, they must be considered a
Many nomad tribes were accused of atrocities, and while they
may not have been matched in the West by numbers, they most
certainly were in kind. More than one nomad tribe was known to
have massacred whole populations of captured cities. Not to
excuse the act, it was often done because they could do nothing
else with the inhabitants since they could not put them all in
jails. On the other side of the coin we have Richard the Lion-
Hearted who captured Acre in 1191 and watched calmly as his men
massacreed 2,700 Moslems. It would seem that the crusaders were
not inclined to extend any Christian charity to their Moslem
Bishop stated, "The Black Prince captured the city of Limoges
in 1370; irritated by its resistance, he had three hundred
inhabitants - men, women and children - beheaded. `...It was a
great pity to see them kneeling before the prince, begging for
mercy; but he took no heed of them,' says Froissart, with hardy a
hint of reprobation." Many western writers tend to overlook or
downplay such occurrences while they severely censure the same
tactic in a nomadic tribe.
The Mongols were criticized for using captured people to
precede their troops when attacking and laying siege to cities.
Now according to Bishop, "The casualties in storming a castle were
usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable." Bishop
was writing of warfare in the West. Apparently the expendability
of lives was common in the West as well as among nomad tribes.
Often, because nomads had had no experience with conquered
cities, they killed the inhabitants and burned the cities. When it
became apparent to them that they could use cities to consolidate
and expand their power, and be a source of future wealth, the
cities were spared. These nomads now became sedentary people, a
people they had formerly despised. When they no longer roamed
their lands in search of grass and water, they were now referred to
by historians as civilized peoples.
Barbara Tuchman writes of the Battle of Crecy, "...dismounted
French knights, hampered by mud, fell into helpless disarray...the
English archers threw down their bows and rushed in with their axes
and other weapons to an orgy of slaughter." One could almost
mistake this for a deed of the Huns, Avars or Turco-Mongols, but
surely the civilized West could not be guilty of such conduct.
The Inquisition, established in 1233, was another fine example
of Western civilization. Being an inquiry into men's faith, no one
was safe. To speak to a known heretic was dangerous. The accused
was not informed of his accusers who might be liars, murderers or
thieves. In ignorance, he had no way to defend himself. He and
anyone who stood beside him could be tortured. A nice touch of
civilization was exhibited when children below the age of puberty
and aged women and men were tortured less severely than the
The trial of Joan d'Arc for witchcraft and heresy, cannot be
considered anything but uncivilized. For five months she was
mercilessly questioned, until broken down, she recanted and later
retracted it. The Church turned her over to the English army who
burned her at Rouen. One would be hard put to find in history
mention of the Church, the English or the French as barbarians for
this barbarous act.
The Middle Ages was an age of needless pain and death. Life
was short, dangerous and doomed. It was a cruel violent age,
indifferent toward suffering. There seemed to be little respect
for human life. We are shocked at the many accounts of tortures,
so-called judicial mutilations, blindings and beheadings, many of
which were perpetrated in the name of justice. Riasanovsky points
out in his Fundamentals of Mongol Law, maiham, (crippling
punishment) was unknown among the Mongols; their chief punishments
being death, flogging and exile, which do not seem to be as
uncivilized as mutilation and blinding.
Twentieth century cruelties are impersonal mass cruelties
which we can view from a distance, air bombings, napalm, atom
bombs, agent orange, genocides and the starvation of peoples, acts
which could be labeled `barbaric`. The Mongol Age was a clearcut
quest for power, material gain and the forging of an empire. This
is not to say that many of their acts were not barbaric, any more
than those of many other nomadic tribes. It is to say that while
peoples sometimes commit barbaric acts, they should not necessarily
be called barbarians. In the Twentieth century we have had W.W. I
and II, Korea and Viet Nam. Can we be so sure why they were fought
and what was gained? The Mongols might be thought of as the East's
equivalent on a gigantic scale, of the Norman invasion of England.
For hundreds of years the nomads were cut off from the rest of
Asia; their lifestyle almost unchanged. Hunting and herding
supported them; there was no farming because the land could not be
irrigated. Meanwhile, the outside world, began to change. The
Chinese wore silk clothing and cultivated the land. Dry years on
the steppes eventually drove the nomads southeast toward these
cultivated lands and here ended the isolation of the nomads.
Nomad tribes had a culture peculiar to their own time and
place. Since so much of their time was occupied with battling for
survival, there was not much time to learn the refinements of
civilization.If we go far enough back in time in any race we can
find barbarism of some sort.
In the Thirteenth century, while the Mongols were invading
China, more than one Chinese general defected to the Mongols,
demonstrating their respect for what the Mongols were: natural
aristocrats who answered to no master but themselves. This
attitude was common among many of the nomad tribes. Their
philosophy was that of free men, free to roam where they chose,
free from the restraints of walled cities and their
responsibilities, free to live as they wished. This freedom tended
to create an independence, often an arrogance, in the nomad. They
acknowledged no "master" but would willingly follow a strong
Nomadization, a distinct way of life, was different from that
which was centered around the city and consequently was known as
civilization. Throughout history civilized people tended to ignore
the dynamic qualities and cultures of the nomads, viewing then as
barbaric. The word "civilized" tends to have a positive
connotation while the word "barbaric" implies a negative image.
Were these judgements or labels of writers of history unbiased?
Were they fair? Were the nomads less rational than sedentary
peoples? To what extent should we concentrate on the most ruthless
aspects of their behavior? Did the tale increase with the telling?
To acknowledge only the brutal aspects of their behavior is to fail
to understand the nomads. Nomadic peoples did not recognize
political boundaries, and laws other than their tribal customs held
no meaning for them, and while they were often wild, they were
In the classical world there were many kinds of barbarians, people
branded so by their neighbors. Celts were barbarians to Romans for
a long time, likewise the Germans to Gaul, and the Slav world to
Germania. The people of southern China for a long time were
considered barbarian by the Chinese of the Yellow River. Because
geographical conditions in all these regions fostered anagricultural
way of life the people of Europe and Western Asia, Iran and China
arrived at the same stage of material civilization by the second half
of the Middle Ages. The nomads of the steppe area, because of
geographical limits, were forced to keep to a pastoral, nomadic way
of life, similar to that which the rest of the world had known
thousands of years earlier at the end of the Neolithic age. Those
steppe and forest people who could not follow an agricultural way of
life remained at a lower cultural level than their agrarian
neighbors. They were not inferior as human beings to the rest of
mankind, but were suspended in time as it were, because their
environment kept them prisoners while their neighbors developed a
more sophisticated way of life.
Nomads acted primarily in ignorance, knowing no other way. It
was part of their culture. In the Empire of the Ilkhans in Persia
for example, nomadism tried to stamp a settled system out of
existence. To a considerable degree they succeeded. Under Hulagu
the Mongols deliberately burned and massacreed, destroyed an 8,000
year old irrigation system and nearly ended the mother civilization
of all the Western world. They, as nomads having been born into
and lived their lives in an open-air environment, viewed sedantary
people as weak, indecisive, corrupt, crowded, and totally
incomprehensible to them; a blight on good pasture land!
Civilization vs pasture, there was no contest!
The Huns, Turks, and Mongols were savages to the sedentary peoples
of China, Iran and Europe. It was believed they could be cowed by a
show of arms, impressed with titles, and fascinated by trinkets, and
that this display would keep them at a safe distance from the
cultivated area. One can quickly realize the attitude of the nomads.
Herdsman who migrated across the meager grazing lands of the steppe
from one dried-up waterhole to another, to the edge of cultivated
lands, stared in surprise and envy at the miracle of sedentary
civilization. Everywhere his gaze registered abundant crops,
buildings stuffed with grain, and all the luxuries of towns life.
The work necessary to maintain this kind of life was not only beyond
the comprehension of the nomad, it was distasteful to him. He could
be likened to a wolf in winter, when it is drawn to a farm and sees a
lamb through the fence. Like the wolf, he experienced the age-old
urge to break in, plunder, and escape with his booty.
Prosperous farms and towns within sight and contact of
pastoral people who suffered horrible famines in time of drought
promoted feelings of envy and more than likely some anger at the
disparity of life. The farming communities of northern China,
Iran, and Kiev were surrounded by an area of poor grazing land
where one year in every ten the watering places dried up, grass
withered, and livestock and nomad perished. From the beginning of
history there has been conflict between nomad and civilized or
sedentary people. It could be called a clash between the "haves"
and the "have-nots".
Pastoral nomadism is not a step between hunting to farming.
The nomad is a specialist in the domestication and control of a
large number of animals and management of great tracts of semi-arid
land in order to provide food and water for his family and animals.
The nomad (which in Greek means cattle-driver) reveled in the
freedom of open land and despised the farmer, who was rooted to the
land and bound to a life of physical toil, yet he came to envy
what the farmer acquired by this physical toil. He had meat from
his herds and their skins for clothing and tent covering. He was
often a victim of the harsh climate but he preferred that to the
sedentary life. In every age nomadic society, while preferring
trade to rape, has often been predatory; one tribe fighting another
for the best grazing-lands, and the desire for luxury items or
manufactured goods beyond their reach has repeatedly driven the
pastoral nomads to assault and and plunder the fields and cities of
their sedentary and civilized neighbors.
The often harsh ways of nomad tribes cannot be compared to present-
day morality. Nomads were influenced by their own environment and by
the different cultures with which they came in contact. Modern
militarists can see in them a supreme accomplishment of warfare, and
pacifists can visualize them asinhuman shedders of blood. They must
be judged against the background of their time, as life was then.
Nomads were not stupid, they were simply shaped in a different
mold from the so-called civilized dwellers in cultivated lands.
They did not yet know the use of writing; but made up for that
lack by a painstaking memory. They had special skills and
special knowledge enabling them to survive in a hostile
environment. This did not make them inferior to their sedentary
neighbors. The nomad learned quickly. Instead of raiding the
edges of civilization, he penetrated deeper into the settled areas,
killing off able-bodied men, carrying off desirable women and young
children who could be raised as slaves or warriors. He learned
that silver and gold had trade value and were not just ornamental.
He developed a taste for wines of the towns, and sweet fruits of
the gardens. His women preferred silks to their homemade
Nomads, for so called barbarians, had a highly developed code
of laws by which they lived. The Mongols were an excellent example
of this. Fragments 1-9, included here, are examples of the scope
of their laws. Death is the punishment for adultery, sodomy, lying
intentionally, practicing sorcery, spying on the behavior of
others, intervening between two parties in a quarrel to help one
against the other, urinating into water or ashes, becoming bankrupt
three times, failure to slaughter an animal, that is to be eaten,
according to Mongol custom, and if in battle, during an attack or
a retreat, anyone let fall his pack, or bow, or any luggage, the
man behind him must alight and return the thing fallen to its
owner; if he does not so alight and return the thing fallen, he is
to be put to death.
Private Law: The Mongols held no private property; the land was for
the common use of the tribe and served the purpose of hunting and
cattle-breeding. See fragment 34 for distribution of property to
Criminal Law: The system of punishments of the Great Yassa
was simple, the penalties being: death, flogging with rods, and
exile. Provision for substitution of ransom for the death penalty
was provided for and crippling punishments were unknown.
Organization of the Courts: Jenghiz Khan instituted the
office of Chief Judge, but one of his successors decreed that
litigations and disputes were to be brought for decision to the
Court of the Khan which eventually became an administrative court.
A woman's social position, in general, was good compared to much of
the rest of the world. She could freely dispose of her property
and take charge of her own affairs. This was not the case, in
general, in Europe. An interesting provision of the Yassa was the
stiff penalty, death, for the same person going bankrupt three
times. First and second bankruptcies carried lesser penalties.
Records of Law: The chief legislative instrument was the
Great Yassa, supplemented by decrees, or edicts, of the Khans. The
Yassa was published about 1218. During the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries, it had force and effectiveness throughout the
Great Mongol Empire, but it was applied only to Mongols and other
Although those nomads who had no religious code to live by,
had certain traditions, and according to these, certain actions
were considered sinful.
Mongol law, like other nomad law, had its roots in the
organization, administration and court of the clan. It developed
from the basic needs of the nomadic hunters and cattlebreeders, who
had by comparison a rather poor cultural inheritance. Most nomad
laws were customs and traditions, passed down from one generation
to another, in oral form.
The Yassa of Jenghiz Khan was the best known, the oldest, and also
the most important Mongol code of laws. It was compiled between 1206
and 1218, the first decade of the reign of Jenghiz Khan as Emperor of
the Steppes. The scattered Mongol tribes, at first, regulated their
lives according to local custom. At the beginning of the thirteenth
century, these tribes were united under the rule of Jenghiz Khan.
With this union came also the union of customary law, which became
written law for all the Mongols under the sovereignty of Jenghiz
Khan, and was known as the Great Yassa. It was called "Great" because
it was the law common to all the tribes as opposed to an individual
tribal Yassa which could exist independent of and side by side with
the Great Yassa. The turmoil created by the Mongols in Central Asia
resulted in an unheaval of peoples, their cultures and their
religions. The rise and fall of their empire produced more enduring
effects in Europe than in Asia. Much of the culture east of the
Euphrates River was stifled under early Mongol dominance, giving rise
to a westward flow of culture rooted in the ancient classical world.
For the first fifty years of the fifteenth century, learned refugees
brought books, works of art, artifacts, ideas and inventions to the
West; all of which launched Europe into the greatest cultural
regeneration ever experienced by man, the Renaissance.
Jenghiz Khan, his successors, as well as other less-known
nomads should be remembered, not for blood baths, pillage and
burning, actions not so unusual in their time, but for breaking
down the barriers set up in the Dark Ages, and putting the East in
touch with the West, to the benefit of mankind in general. This
should be their memorial.